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Subsidies are swaying commuters to drive less

NEW YORK -- For 20 years, Martha Fitts drove 32 miles a day to her job, guzzling, in total, about 6,000 gallons of gasoline. At today's prices, that's worth nearly $18,000.

This year, Fitts' employer hiked its monthly transportation subsidy from $30 to $70, and the mother of two realized she could get to work virtually for free if she took the bus. On June 1, she started leaving her Nissan Maxima at home, and estimates she'll save about $250 to $300 a month by not paying for gas or parking. Her commute time has lengthened from 40 minutes to about 55 minutes.

``I've been kind of fed up with the pure volume of gas I've been purchasing. I thought I'd try for a month to see what it was like to ride the bus -- and I liked it." said Fitts, who works in human resources at the Regence Group, a Blue Cross Blue Shield provider based in Portland, Ore.

Since hiking its subsidy, Regence Group's employee participation in the program has shot up from about 1,000 to 1,300.

With gas prices more than $3 a gallon in parts of the country, nearly 40 percent of commuters are turning to mass transit or carpooling, according to a survey from the federally funded Best Workplaces for Commuters. And employers are seeing benefits to greasing the wheels of that transition. More companies are enrolling in commuter tax benefit programs, signing up for employee discounts with local mass transit, and hiking their transportation subsidies.

Advantages include tax breaks and retaining employees; the same survey said 12 percent of commuters have considered switching jobs simply to shorten their commute.

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